One of the most serious charges against the ‘Putin regime’ in Russia is that it routinely murders its political opponents. In the cases of Aleksandr Litvinenko and the attempted killing of Sergei Skripal, there is some good reason to believe that the Russian intelligence services were involved. Beyond those two examples, however, hard evidence of Russian state involvement in the extrajudicial killings of journalists, opposition figures, and others is almost entirely lacking. As I pointed out in my review of Amy Knight’s book Orders to Kill, the thesis that Putin is bumping off his enemies left, right and centre relies ‘for the most part on pure speculation and argument by means of insinuation, devoid of any actual evidence.’ This, however, has not stopped such speculation from spreading so far and wide that it has become accepted almost as fact.
Take, for instance, the case of Alexander Perepilichny, a Russian financier who participated in the infamous money laundering scheme which led to the death in prison of Bill Browder’s accountant Sergei Magnitsky. Fearing prosecution for his crimes, Perepilichny fled to the UK, where he turned whistleblower, revealing information about illegal flows of Russian money into Swiss banks. In 2012, Perepilichny died while out jogging. One might imagine that a low-level crook like Perepilichny would be well below the radar of the Russian president, but that did not stop widespread speculation that the fugitive money launderer had been assassinated on Putin’s orders. And before long a whole stream of articles appeared in the press claiming just that.
For instance, Buzzfeed, as part of a whole series of stories about alleged victims of Russian state murder squads, reported that it had ‘uncovered explosive evidence of a suspected Kremlin assassination plot.’ Perepelichny, it said, was ‘likely assassinated on the direct orders of Vladimir Putin.’ It quoted information allegedly provided to the British government by American spies, as well as Chris Phillips, the former head of Britain’s Counter Terrorism Security Office, who told Buzzfeed that, ‘It’s so obvious that it’s an assassination. There’s no way it wasn’t a hit.’
Others were a little less forthright, refusing to say point blank that Putin did it, but nonetheless speculating on the matter in such a way as to suggest very strongly that this was the case. The Atlantic magazine, which one might well consider a far more established and respectable outlet that Buzzfeed, published a long investigation into the Perepelichny story which relied heavily on the evidence of Bill Browder. According to The Atlantic, ‘Browder had no doubt that Perepilichny was murdered.’ It concluded, ‘In Perepilichny’s case, a number of factors might make it impossible to prove he was murdered,’ but the Russian secret service ‘have a near-perfect record of killing without leaving conclusive evidence, only a trail of suspicion. Whether or not Alexander Perepilichny is part of that record, only they know.’ Leaving it hanging in the air in this way, the magazine thus managed to avoid a conclusion while insinuating one very strongly.
In the same way, Foreign Policy magazine included the Perepilichny case in an article entitled ‘A Brief History of Attempted Russian Assassinations by Poison’. And the Washington Post mentioned it also in an article entitled ‘The long, terrifying history of Russian dissidents being murdered abroad.’ Perepilichny was not, of course, a ‘dissident’, but by now, the idea that this was murder was so well established that inconvenient little details no longer mattered.
Today, a British inquest into Perepilichny’s death concluded its work. This morning, as the inquest wound up, headlines continued to treat the case as murder. For instance, just two hours before the coroner issued his verdict, The Independent newspaper ran the headline, ‘Alexander Pereplichny inquest: Who was the Russian millionaire allegedly murdered by Kremlin officials.’ The Independent then went on to report that, ‘Unconfirmed reports claim MI6 received intelligence indicating Perepilichny was “assassinated on direct orders from Putin or people close to him”.’ Around the same time, in an article which has since disappeared from the internet, the Daily Mirror cited the words of the coroner to frame the Russians’ death as ‘murder’, leaving little doubt that this was in fact the case.
And then – shock, horror! – the inquest verdict came in. As the Mirror had to report, in contradiction to its previous article (which, it seems, was quickly withdrawn in shame), ‘Russian whistleblower who mysteriously collapsed while jogging “died of natural causes”,’ That’s right. The inquest has concluded that Perepilichny was not murdered after all. Rather the coroner, Justice Nicholas Hilliard QC, remarked that,
I am satisfied on the evidence I have heard I can properly and safely conclude that it was more likely than not that he [Perepilichny] died of natural causes, namely sudden arrhythmic death syndrome. There really is no evidence that he was unlawfully killed.
Well this is embarrassing. We’ve heard a lot in the past couple of years about Russia ‘disinformation’, ‘fake news’, and the like. And for sure, if you get all your news from Russian sources, you’re going to end up with a very lopsided view of the world. But as this story shows, there’s no shortage of nonsense in Western media too. The difference is that whereas there’s a huge army of well-funded institutions and individuals now devoted to uncovering and countering ‘Russian disinformation’, there seems to be little or no accountability for the false stories produced by Western sources. Will Amy Knight, Buzzfeed, The Atlantic, and all the others now apologise for spreading a false story? Will the Integrity Initiative or any of the other projects set up to counter ‘disinformation’ call them out for it? Don’t count on it. More likely they’ll just suggest that Justice Hilliard got it wrong. And then they’ll wonder why people choose to trust internet trolls instead.